What to Expect from Libraries in the 21st Century by Pam Sandlian Smith (Transcript)

Pam Sandlian Smith

Here is the full transcript of What to Expect from Libraries in the 21st Century by Pam Sandlian Smith at TEDxMileHigh.

Pam Sandlian Smith – Director at Anythink Libraries

When you work in a public library, you never know who’s going to come through that door, you never know what questions they are going to ask.

One day, a young boy who was eight or nine years old asked an unusual question. He’d been hanging out in the library all summer. And he said, “I have an idea. I’d like to check out a room today. I’d like to check out a room for the week as a matter of fact. I’ve been scoping the space out and you have a story-hour room you are not using and a puppet, a stage that doesn’t seem to be used, and I’d like to put together a puppet program for the kids and their families on Friday afternoon. What do you think?” It’s an unusual question.

And I couldn’t, I clicked through my mind as to, “Well, what could possibly get wrong?” Seemed like an innocent enough question, and I thought, OK, let’s go for it. So I said, “Yes, with two caveats. One, you just need to check in and out with the staff so that they know where you are, and you need to pick up after yourself.” He did exactly that.

He came in every afternoon, he set up the stage, he worked on his project, he worked with the puppets and on Friday afternoon, there were signs handmade all over the library: “Puppet show. Two o’clock.” He gathered about 30 people in the storyhour room, kids, and their moms, and their dads. He did a lovely puppet show. The kids clapped, he was happy. I thought he was a star. Good idea.

He left, and we didn’t see him for a couple of weeks. Later that fall, he came in on a Saturday. He came up to the desk, and he brought his dad with him, and he said, “Today is my birthday, and of all the places in the world, the place that I wanted to come to the most was the library. I want to introduce you to my Dad.” And then he said, “But I have some news. We are going to be moving away, my Dad got a job. We are moving out of the homeless shelter. We have an apartment. And we are not going to be able to come back to the library anymore. But I wanted to say goodbye and thank you.”

So as that boy and his dad left, I had this big lump in my throat. Little did I know that when he asked that question, how important it was for him to have that space to create, to think, to fulfill some dreams. He needed someone to have the instinct to say yes, and I am so grateful that I did. He needed somebody to be on his side. Isn’t that what we all need?

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Some people have questioned the relevance of libraries today. All over the world, libraries are adapting to meet their communities’ needs, and they are different in different communities. In London, they’ve completely rebranded libraries. They call them the “idea stores”, where people could come in, have a cup of coffee, take a class, or shop for an idea.

Libraries are becoming early responders. Last year, after Hurricane Sandy, the New York public libraries were some of the first agencies to reopen after the hurricane. This is an image of a Queen’s library branch in which, the day after Sandy happened — they didn’t have water, they didn’t have electricity but they opened for their community to distribute food, important supplies, and water.

The same thing has happened in Colorado lately. During our disasters, the recent fires and floods, our libraries are there, doing whatever our communities need. In Adams County, we were the poorest library system for over 40 years. In 2006, our community voted to increase our funding, and I’m ever so grateful because now, we have seven brilliant lovely libraries that are places that people can come and do that dreaming that they need to, that creating.

We used the model of the Treehouse as one of our points of inspiration. Because if you’ve ever built a Treehouse or a fort, you know that feeling of being in that space, where you are in charge, you have the power. You are in charge of the world, and you can do a dream or become anything you want. That’s what happens in libraries.

Over 100 years ago, the first city librarian, John Cotton Dana, said the purpose of the public library is the pursuit of happiness first, and education second. When those are your inspirations, happiness and education, it’s all good.

Libraries are places where you can create and collaborate. We have tools to share, like this 3D printer. You can learn how to do digital photography, or you can make a video. This is our studio. One of our most important resources are actually our staff. This is Moe, our studio guide. We think all of our staff are part wizard, part genius, part explorer, and the work that they do everyday changes people’s lives.

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Libraries are learning places. We used to rely on books for learning, but now we know that people have different learning styles. That’s why we have community gardens at our libraries. People come together and they learn from each other, they work together, they show each other how to plant and how to grow the best vegetables. They learn how to get along. We work with Denver Urban Gardens. Their mission is building community, one garden at a time. Our community gardeners get to know their neighbors, and that’s as important as knowing how to grow those vegetables.

At our library, everything is one big experiment, and that’s why, when our facilities’ Director, Doug, came in my office one day, and said, “Pam, I’d like to hire urban goats to come and mow our grass” I get all sorts of great questions, and my response is almost always yes.

But, when 300 goats showed up at our library with the goat herders for a week, we were in for a big surprise. We didn’t realize that this was going to turn into one of our biggest experiences, the biggest learning experiences. Almost immediately, kids, and their moms, and dads, and families started asking questions, like, “Tell me about the goat’s digestive system,” “Can I pet the goat?”, “Can I feed the goat?”, “What do goats eat?”, “Where is the baby goat?” They pulled grass, and they pulled our weeds — which was great, that was cheap labor. Some families even went home, and they pulled weeds from their yards, and then brought it back to the library the next day.

You can learn anything if you make it playful. Libraries bring history to life, and that creates conversation. We recently brought in an exhibit from the Holocaust Museum that was [“Fighting the Fires of Hate, the Nazis and the Book Banning “] and we wanted people to talk about this, and interact, and so we had this question as they left the library, and they could vote: would you risk jail time to defend your favorite book? Yes or no. The questions actually were just about even, and we listened to people as they were leaving the library having this big family discussions about whether they would go to jail over Harry Potter.

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In order to bring additional context to the exhibit, we invited Walter Pulaski, he’s one of the ten surviving Holocaust survivors in the state of Colorado, he lives in Boulder. Walter shared his stories that night. He told us about how they survived in the ghettos in Poland on 300 calories a day. And how his brother and he spent time in Auschwitz and Dachau, and how they survived and escaped.

At the end of his speech, he left us with these words, “Don’t be an evil doer, don’t be a bystander to evil.” As I said to Walter, whereas people were leaving, “Isn’t this exhausting?”

And Walter, in his typical Walter way, said, “Who else is going to do it?” This is his mission.

Libraries are places that support creativity, community, innovation, and entrepreneurialism. We are the cornerstones of democracy. Everyone has a seat at the table, and we treat everyone with the same respect and dignity, whether you are a millionaire, or whether you are that boy who was homeless.

So the next time somebody says to you, “Why do we need a library?” I ask you to pause and reflect, and I hope you’ll think, “Who else is going to do this?”

Thank you.

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